I’ve gotten into the habit of “documenting” my attempts to get closer to a new tune I am trying to learn by video taping multiple “takes” of my efforts, and posting them on my YouTube channel, clearly marked as successive endeavors to play the tune in a manner that (hopefully) demonstrates a capacity to improve.
I suppose my efforts don’t always follow that trajectory. I suppose successive efforts can get further from the tune. When that happens, as it has in one recent instance, having the various “takes” allows me to see where I went off course. Did I focus too much on capturing the entire melody without thinking how to translate the tune into clawhammer? Was I too predictably rhythmic to the extent of leaving something out in a way that pushed me further and further from the melody? Or have I simply not managed to integrate the elements of the tune, have I failed to find the tune’s core character, and missed its musical point completely?
I talked about one such effort in my Little Bear Banjo Hospital blog recently (8 August 2014):
In this musical adventure, I was trying to get at Wade Ward’s Old Joe Clark, inspired by Stephen Wade’s rousing interpretation of the tune:
I think I’ve come further since that blog:
And in this instance, I’ve had Dan Levenson’s personal intervention in the form of his Banjo Hangout “Tunetorial,” a weekly informal teaching video that Dan posts:
But I’m still not that much closer to understanding Wade Ward’s playing. I still don’t have the equation in mind that will get me closer to the way Ward played the banjo, producing his own unique rhythmic sense that accented his fiddler friend Uncle Charlie Higgins.
I get that he plays drop thumb on “internal strings” and uses that scratch followed by a downpick on the 1st string, twice, but that gets me closer to elements of his style, not the style itself.
Ted Ingham observed, in a 2009 Banjo Hangout thread:
One tip is that Miles Krassen's clawhammer book relies on Uncle Wade a lot, and his tab arrangements include a lot of "internal drop-thumbing" which seems one of the keys to his style. Ward often plays the 2nd string in combo with a drop-thumb to the 3rd, or ditto with the 3rd and 4th as part of his rhythmic accompaniment. I think this gives his playing a great rhythmic complexity and hop, definitely analogous to Monk. (See: http://www.banjohangout.org/archive/141087)
In the same thread, David Douglas noted:
Not long ago I went to a Bruce Molsky concert and I cornered him before the show to ask him if he had an inspiration for his technique of frequently sounding his 4th string while playing banjo (not drop thumbing, doing it in place of the brush stroke). He immediately answered "Wade Ward", his first inspiration on OT banjo playing! I went home, relistened to some Wade Ward recordings (he was also my very first OT banjo inspiration) and, lo and behold, there it was, right in there. I guess I'd been missing this little subtly all these years. I suggest trying to throw that into the mix and seeing if that brings you closer to Wade's sound.
… The way he plays June Apple, part A, coming in with quarter notes on the first string; 5th fret, open, 5th, open... Should be pretty darn simple, but not when he does it. You hear musicians talk sometimes about how sometimes it's more important what you leave out. I don't think anyone got that any better than Wade.
Now, Stephen Wade took another look at my most recent hack at the tune Old Joe Clark, and suggested an interesting exercise:
In words can you describe how wade ward plays the piece? Can you tell us about the degree of physical pressure he uses in his right hand? Can you tell us about the tune and its several parts? It occurs to me to try this exercise. It's something you can do readily and requires no new or latent skills and it may help you sort out your next steps in mastering the piece.
Stephen also emphasized the importance of just listening, listening repeatedly, to Wade Ward’s approach to a variety of tunes. So for a week I spent about two hours every morning listening to a loop of the Field Recorders’ Collective (FRC) CD by Ward, fiddler Charlie Higgins, and Dale Poe (on guitar):
I found it harder to listen to the banjoing, separating that sound from the dominant fiddling of Charlie Higgins and the powerful rhythmic guitar work of Dale Poe. I found it easier to focus on the fiddle work. I came away with some sense of the idioms Wade Ward deploys in working with his fiddler.
Ward’s playing is elusive, eccentric, and perhaps unpredictable. Maybe that is its charm, and the source of the utter fascination with which old time banjo players pursue elements of his style. I do find it intriguing, even captivating.
Recently, a musician familiar with, indeed adept at all these styles suggested to me, in response to my query, that Wade Ward's approach seemed almost to be the inverse of Dwight Diller's attack. He made the case that if Diller's rhythm was "bump-a-ditty" the Wade Ward's was "ditty-bump."
I'm not exactly certain that this gets me closer to being able to capture any of the equation at the core of Ward's style, but it does hint at an interesting dimension of this playing style, a unique idiom that might be part of the equation of the Wade Ward sound.
And I am reminded of the reason why some idioms, linguistically, do not necessarily contribute to the vibrancy and strength of a language, over time fall out of favor or become surrounded by more effective renditions of an idea, and are replaced by other idioms or overtaken by slang.
Nevertheless, Stephen Wade emphasized that the challenge to catching this particular player’s style begins with listening rather than playing. He gave me this guidance:
-- Listen to the original.
-- Let that model imprint itself on you.
-- Think about what you're trying to achieve.
-- Think about the distance between your version and your goal.
-- Get acclimated to using your ear.
-- This does not happen overnight.
-- It's a skill that one forever builds.
Back to the drawing board…